Government refocuses UK defence budget

Britain’s tanks and aircraft are to be scaled back in favour of technology to support operations in Afghanistan, as part of the defence review unveiled yesterday.

Prime minister David Cameron said the government’s Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR) had concluded more resources should be focused on the unconventional threats of the future including cyber warfare.

More equipment to protect against improvised explosive devices (IEDs), more communications and surveillance capability, including unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and 12 new heavy-lift Chinook helicopters would be provided to troops in Afghanistan, he said.

In addition to an eight per cent budget cut designed to save £4.7bn, the two planned aircraft carriers will be built as planned but the decision to renew Britain’s fleet of nuclear submarines will be delayed until 2016.

‘This review sets out a step change in the way we protect this country’s security interests,’ Cameron told Parliament.

‘From armed forces that are overstretched, under-equipped and deployed too often without appropriate planning to the most professional and most flexible modern forces in the world, fully equipped for the challenges of the future.’

The number of tanks and heavy artillery will be reduced by around 40 per cent while the Harrier jump jets will be retired in favour of sustaining the fleet of Typhoon aircraft. The £3.6bn programme to build nine Nimrod maritime patrol aircraft has also been cancelled.

The two new Queen Elizabeth class aircraft carriers will be built as planned but the first to be delivered will only carry helicopters before being withdrawn from active service after three years once the second is complete.

A different variant of Joint Strike Fighters (JSFs) that can be launched at sea will be bought instead of the ones originally identified and the second carrier will be redesigned to take these planes.

One of the Royal Navy’s existing carriers, HMS Ark Royal, will be decommissioned immediately and the withdrawal of the Harriers will mean Britain will lack the ability to launch fighter planes from sea until the second carrier and JSFs are delivered in 2019.

The next preparation phase of replacing the Trident nuclear deterrent will start this year and the new submarines will feature fewer launch tubes and warheads. The life of the existing Vanguard-class submarines will be extended so the first will not retire until 2028.

But the decision to build the new boats will not take place until the next parliament. ‘We will save around £1.2bn and defer a further £2bn of spending from the next 10 years,’ said Cameron.

The production of six Type 45 destroyers will go ahead, as will a new programme to develop less expensive, more flexible, modern frigates. But by 2020 the total number of frigates and destroyers will fall from 23 to 19.

More than £500m of new money will be invested in a national cyber security programme to enhance the country’s defences against online attacks and fix holes in the cyber infrastructure.

Cameron said the Ministry of Defence faced significant challenges in cutting spending and planned to renegotiate contracts with industry. But he also noted: ‘Even after this review we expect to continue with the fourth largest military budget in the world.’

Responding to the announcement, Ian Godden, chairman of defence industry body ADS, said: ‘Industry welcomes the clarity provided by the review, which will ensure that plans can be adapted to meet new situations and future investment decisions can be made.

‘The key test of the success of the review will be the extent to which it ensures that the UK has the industrial capabilities to address long-term future security needs and that our armed forces are equipped for the tasks that the nation asks of them.’